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National Library of Israel acquires Moses Montefiore Haggadah for collection

The dedication page of the Moses Montefiore Haggadah acquired by the National Library of Israel for their world's largest Haggadah collection
The dedication page of the Moses Montefiore Haggadah acquired by the National Library of Israel for their world's largest Haggadah collection
Israel Hayom / National Library of Israel

The National Library of Israel acquired this Passover season a haggadah once owned by Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) the most well known Jew from Great Britain to their collection, the largest in the world according to a report published on Tuesday, April 8, 2014 by Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom. The printed haggadah known as the Montefiore Haggdah is not only special because of its famous owner, but because it is the last known copy of a specific version of the haggadah published in London in 1837.

The haggadah was a gift from Montefiore to Rabbi Joseph E. Myers, a rabbi who served across the British Empire, in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The most unique page of the haggadah is where Montefiore wrote a dedication to his friend, the Montefiore family crest is affixed to the inside cover and placed in the center and the dedication is handwritten above and below the family symbol. There we learn that Montefiore gave this haggadah to Rabbi Myers on the eve of the first Passover seder in 1849. The haggdah also indicates that Montefiore gave it to the rabbi from his home in Ramsgate, England, his country estate was also central to Montefiore's religious life.

Montefiore spent his whole life living as part of the Western Europe's Jewish elite and his adult life as the "the preeminent Jewish figure of the nineteenth century" as Abigail Green recounts in her biography "Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero," the most complete biography of his life. Montefiore was one of the 12 Jewish financial brokers in London in the early 19th century. Born in Italy to a Sephardic Jewish family, his family moved back to England, where Montefiore was educated.

Afterwards Montefiore entered the grocers and tea merchants' trade, before entering the finance business and stockbroking with his brother Abraham. Montefiore's profile and success in the business grew when he married into Nathan Mayer Rothschild's family. Among the Jewish world, Monetfiore's business is not what made him well known and remembered, but his philanthropy and proto-Zionism in pre-state Israel. Montefiore retired young from the business world in 1824 at the age of 40 to concentrate the rest of his long life on his philanthropic efforts.

Montefiore's first visit to Israel was in 1827 and it changed his life, specifically when he and his wife Judith Barent-Cohen prayed at Rachel Tomb for children; although the Montifiores never had any children. He subsequently visited Israel six other times. The moment led him to become religiously observant, he served as the president of the Beavis Marks Synagogue for 39 years, and travelled with a "shohet" to ensure all the meat he ate was kosher as he extensively travelled. Montefiore even built his own synagogue at his Ramsgate estate, calling it the Montefiore Synagogue, which was designed by his cousin, David Mocatta completed in 1833 in the Regency style used so often for private chapel and British religious architecture, and it was the first synagogue designed by a Jew in Britain.

Montefiore's most extensive philanthropy was towards the small Jewish community in Israel, hoping to entice more Jews to live there. Montefiore used his money and the estate of his friend Judah Touro to establish agricultural communities outside of Jerusalem's Old City beginning the New Yishuv, including establishing separate communities for Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. Montefiore also set-up the essentials for a growing a community in Jerusalem, including health care, education and charity, some industries and essential factories, and the windmill to mill flour that still stands today.

Additionally, Montefiore worked to help Jews facing anti-Semitism in Russia, Romania, Morroco and the Ottoman Empire. Montifiore also fought for the struggles of British Jews to gain emancipation, and served as the "head" of English Jewry's Board of Deputies. Montefiore participated not only in Jewish philanthropic efforts, but was also closely involved in the reformers of Britain, and worked towards abolishing slavery in the British Empire. Montefiore served as the sheriffs in both London and Kent, and was recognized by Queen Victoria for his philanthropy; he was knighted and made a baron.

The haggadah and friendship with Rabbi Myers reflected Montefiore's religious life. The haggadah's front page also has the Montefiore family crest which was emblazoned on the top with two banners with the word Jerusalem in Hebrew, while the cover itself notes that the book belonged to Montefiore. The actual version of this haggadah is the only known copy left, written in Hebrew and English, while National Library told Israel Hayom they believed there were "hundreds of copies" published of this particular type of Haggadah printed in 1837. Up until now the National Library never had a copy of this version.

The National Library found the Montefiore Haggadah at a recent New York auction, but little other details were revealed. National Library Collections Division head Dr. Aviad Stollman told Israel Hayom about their most recent "rare" acquisition," explaining; "Through our efforts, we recently acquired at a New York auction a Passover Haggadah that once belonged to Moses Montefiore."

The National Library's "A Special Collection of Haggadot for Passover" is varied and far-ranging and includes written haggadahs, illuminated manuscripts, printed haggadahs, and even photo copied versions. The library's collections head described the collection they possess to Israel Hayom, explaining; "In the National Library collection, there are hand-written Haggadot, rare and new printed Haggadot, Haggadot in various languages, photographs of hand-written Haggadot and a range of traditional and nontraditional Haggadot in different styles." Speaking to Israel Hayom, Stollman discussed the library's goal for their Haggadah collection, declaring; "The library is trying to get every Haggadah ever printed through donations and acquisitions… The collection of Haggadot at the National Library in Jerusalem is the largest in the world, with about 10,000 Haggadot."

Montefiore was buried at his Ramsgate Estate, in a tomb built close his estate's synagogue. The mausoleum was built to exactly resemble Rachel's Tomb in Israel, and it itself became a pilgrimage spot. According to Abigail Green in her biography "Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero" Hasidim visited his tomb considering him a Hasid, Montefiore was venerated as a Zionist and as a messiah by Russian Jews. Although Montefiore's country home is long gone, the synagogue and his tomb there remain, with the synagogue still being used by Sephardic Jews in the area. The Montefiore Haggadah recently acquired by the National Library of Israel just represents another tangible piece of the legacy of who was considered "the most famous Jew of the 19th century."


Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes JBuzz & Together with Israel. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.

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